Much more than beach resorts, the Dominican Republic is one of the Caribbean's most geographically diverse countries, from stunning mountain scenery to desert scrublands, evocative colonial architecture, buzzing city life and languid countryside, and famously warm welcoming people. Where do you start? Try these 10 top travel experiences:
Take a walk through history in the oldest city in the New World. With its cobblestone streets and beautifully restored mansions, it’s easy to imagine Santo Domingo’s landmark quarter as the seat of Spain’s 16th-century empire. But the past and present coexist rather gracefully here; follow in the footsteps of pirates and conquistadors one moment, while the next pop into a shop selling CDs from the latest Dominican merengue star.
2. Relaxing at Playa Rincón
Consistently rated one of the top beaches in the Caribbean by those in the know – people who courageously brave heatstroke and sunburn in a quest for the ideal – Playa Rincón is large enough for every day-tripper to claim their own piece of real estate without nosy neighbors peeking over the seaweed and driftwood. A thick palm forest provides the backdrop and fresh seafood can be served upon request.
This sleepy fishing village at the far eastern end of the Península de Samaná is an escape from your getaway. Fewer tourists and therefore less development means the area around Las Galeras includes some of the more scenic locales in all the DR. Swaying palm trees back beaches ready made for a movie set and waves crash over hard-to-get-to cliffs. For at least one sunset, venture out to Restaurant El Cabito, where you might glimpse migrating whales and a dolphin or two.
4. Bahía de Las Águilas
The remoteness and loneliness add savor and spice to the adventure of getting to Bahía de Las Águilas, a stunning 10km-long stretch of yellow sand. That you have to take a boat to get there – and that there won’t be any tourists there except for you – transform it into one of the most beautiful beaches in the country.
Get dressed to the nines, do some stretching and get your dance moves on. Nightclubs in the seaside resort hotels host some of the best merengue and salsa bands this side of Havana. No museum showcase, even the Zona Colonial is chock-a-block with bars, from trendy hangouts for the fashionable set to loud and sweaty corner stores for locals.
North Americans and Europeans aren’t the only ones who migrate south to the Caribbean in the winter. Every year, thousands of humpback whales congregate off the Península de Samaná to mate and give birth, watched (from a respectful distance) by boatloads of their human fans. For an even more intimate experience, week-long live-aboard excursions in the Silver Bank north of Puerto Plata offer the extremely rare opportunity to snorkel alongside these massive mammals.
7. Descending the 27 waterfalls of Damajagua
A short drive from Puerto Plata, a hard-won slosh to the far side of the river and a trek through the lush forest lead to these falls. Experiencing this spectacular series of cascades involves wading through clear pools, swimming through narrow, smooth-walled canyons, hiking through forest, and climbing rocks, ropes and ladders through the roaring falls themselves. And yet the real fun is on the return trip, when you can leap and slide back down the falls, some jumps as high as 30ft. For more details see Take the plunge: the 27 waterfalls of Damajagua.
8. White-water rafting
The Caribbean’s only raftable river, the Río Yaque del Norte in the central highlands of the DR is tailor-made for those looking to recharge their batteries after too much sun and sand. Short but intense series of rapids will get the adrenaline going, as will a spill in the cold roiling river; fortunately, however there are as many stretches of flat water where you can loosen your grip on the paddle and gaze at the mountain scenery in the distance.
9. Winter Baseball
Dominicans don’t just worship at Sunday Mass: baseball makes a solid claim for the country’s other religion. Hometown fanatics cheer their team on with a passion and enthusiasm equal to bleacher creatures in Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park. The Dominican league’s six teams go cabeza a cabeza several nights a week – Estadio Quisqueya in Santo Domingo is home field for two longtime rivals – culminating in a championship series at the end of January.
10. Mountain Vistas in Constanza
The scenery found in the central highlands of the DR is a surprise to most visitors. Cloud-covered peaks whose slopes are a patchwork of well-tended agricultural plots and galloping forest growth rise from the valley floor in ways not often associated with Caribbean islands. Truly a world away from the developing coastline, a stay on the outskirts of Constanza provides a front-row seat to often spectacular sunsets – it’s also this time of day when the temperature begins to dip and the chilly air calls for sweaters and blankets.
This article was originally published in September 2011 and updated in October 2012.
Inspired to explore? Be sure to keep Lonely Planet's definitive guide to the Dominican Republic and Haiti by your side, whether you're trying these top experiences or going further afield.